Newt Gingrich is Wrong: Child Labor is Not An Education Policy

Current GOP presidential frontrunner Newt Gingrich thinks poor children should be janitors. Why? Well, as Gingrich explained this Thursday, “Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works.” So, as his reasoning follows, having children mop floors in addition to going to school will provide them with the necessary work habits to make it in life while at the same time save taxpayers money by supplanting currently employed janitors with children. Brilliant, right?

Wrong.

There are several problems with Gingrich’s prescription for poor children. For starters, it is based on the false assumptions that (1) poor people in poor neighborhoods have poor working habits (in fact, the opposite is true) and (2) a janitor’s work could be appropriately handled by a child (which is also untrue). But factual inaccuracies aside, Gingrich’s suggestion that poor children work as janitors is problematic because of its reductionist take on education, namely that the purpose of education (particularly in the case of the poor) is to equip students for vocational work. The purpose of education, though, must be defined much more broadly if we are to provide children with the best opportunity at a self-actualized life, or a life in which each child realizes his or her individual potential and is prepared to be a productive member of society.

Gingrich’s take on education harks back to an antiquated view of pedagogy. For the majority of our nation’s history, individuals faced barriers to educational opportunities on the basis of race, gender and class. This unequal access was justified by the idea that certain individuals in society were meant to occupy certain vocations; in other words – if your father worked in a factory, it was expected that you would end up in a factory as well; or if your mother was a slave, for example, it was expected that you would remain a slave. It was not until the late 19th and 20th centuries that the view on education began to shift and social mobility became more than a mere conceit. It was in the 20th century that Horace Mann’s theories on common schooling became mainstream and laws against child labor and racial segregation in schooling (the most noticeable legal forms of inequality in education) were enforced.

While Gingrich’s comments do not suggest that we return to an era of non-egalitarian schooling, they do suggest that we return to a work-centric view of education based on class. Much like pre-20th century views on child laborers, Gingrich’s views suggest that certain children (read: “poor children”) must be taught “habits” of work that align with their class status. Poor children, in Gingrich’s view, should spend their hours working as janitors, while rich children, one can gather, should spend their hours interning at law firms or editing the school newspaper. There is a tradeoff here that must be acknowledged. Working as a janitor (or laboring in any vocation while one is a child) takes time away from studying, working on homework, practicing an instrument or socializing among one’s peers – activities that provide skills valued highly in our society.

Instead of preparing poor children to labor as janitors, we should focus on developing broader mental, physical and social skills, which will provide children with a broad set of skills that will enable them to contribute to society in the manner they determine. While Gingrich may be correct that working as janitors would provide students with work habits, let’s be serious – so would increasing the rigor in our nation’s schools and providing students with meaningful extracurricular activities. Suggesting that poor children sacrifice the accrual of a broad set of skills that would afford them broader options in the future for the accrual of a particular set of labor skills limits poor children’s opportunities. When it comes to the education of our nation’s children, we should be doing just the opposite.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

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Matthew Clair

Matthew Clair is a PhD student in sociology at Harvard. He regularly contributes to The Diverse Arts Project.

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